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Future Startup Reads: Don’t Go Back To School By Kio Stark

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Dec 10, 2014

Cue: Recently, I took a chance upon Kio Stark’s 2012 bold book ‘Don’t Go Back to school: A Handbook For Learning Anything’-an immensely insightful and practical book to go through for anyone who is interested in learning.

Kio Stark Credit: By Bre Pettis
Kio Stark
Credit: By Bre Pettis

“The critical skill for this century is not what you know, it’s how fast you can learn” writes Liz Wiseman in his book Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. In her fascinating book ‘Don’t Go Back To School’ Kio Stark gives a reason why school is not the only option for learning and education and illustrates a roadmap for how we can have a profound and effective education of our own.

Criticism against the industrial education complex is old one. Although we are struggling to raise the number of enrollment in school here in Bangladesh, there is an intense debate going on centering socially accepted model for distributing education. Since I’m a product of this education system, and luckily had the chance to receive education from one of the best public universities of the country I can understand how futile and unexpected the results of these degrees are. Moreover, in recent times instead of having an education or giving education certificate or credential has become more important. And there are accusations against many private universities of playing immoral around the very matter of giving education.

There are two streams in current higher education phenomenon of Bangladesh. The private and public-whereas private one, except few exceptions, has to bear the mark of definite industrial complex and a level of corporate orientation that denies the very purpose of education, at the same time the quality of education from both streams remains close. The presentation, PowerPoint, mindless reading out from the books by equally disinterested teachers in the name of lectures, the assignments and mindlessly selected course works defines the ultimate process of education.

So when I came across the work of Kio Stark I made a deliberate attempt to go through and learn. Funded by a 2011 Kickstarter project Don’t Go Back To School is a handbook for independent learning that shows you how to learn almost anything without going back to school.

The book stars with Stark’s own experience and disdain for formal education system. Stark who dropped out from Yale describes the project as her own walk way for learning things she wanted to learn and also answer to the questions people often ask her about going back to school. For the book she interviewed people who have learned things by themselves out of the structure of formal education. Stark calls the project a radical one that does not go for ‘reform’ instead tries to find a new way to build things ground up:

This book is a radical project, the opposite of reform. It is not about fixing school, it’s about transforming learning — and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option. I think all the energy and money reformers spend trying to fix school misses the real problem: we don’t have good alternatives for people who want to learn without going to school, for people who don’t learn well in school settings, or for those who can’t afford it.

Reflecting on how independent learning works Stark goes back to find a prescription for all inclined learners who want to follow their curiosity and dig through the rabbit-hole to find out more. While attempting to find a way out for independent learning she interviewed people who learned things their own and asked them how they did it:

People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.

Don't Go Back To School  Credit: Kickstarter Campaign
Don't Go Back To School
Credit: Kickstarter Campaign

While telling a lot about the structure and infrastructure of how independent learning works Stark also advocates the advantage of learning your own. Education is a matter of discernment and it does not work with deadlines and selections. You need to give time and think over and go back and forth as you require. As Stark notes:

I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it. As I read the books on my lists, I taught myself to read slowly, to keep track of what I was reading, and to think about books as part of an ongoing conversation with each other. I learned to take what was useful and make sure it was credible and leave the rest aside.

Education is a precious thing to have. Access to education should not be a matter of question ever. Whilst we need to restructure a lot to program a mindset that would value education regardless of credentials, we also need to make sure that education or learning is no one’s monopoly. You can learn things-if you want to. Stark asserts you can take your education not going back to school and one of the reasons is that there are hell lots of examples of doing so before you:

To someone who has never tried, it’s not obvious how to learn the things you want to learn outside of school. I’m on a mission to show you how. To do that, I became obsessed with how other people learn best, and how they do it without going to school. Everywhere I looked, I found people who reach beyond what they’re used to, people who create alternatives for themselves and share those alternatives with others. I interviewed 90 of them. As you read, you’ll meet 23 of them, people who rejected school early on as well as those who loved school and then graduated into passionate learning without it. They’ll tell you how they do it and what drives them to learn.

The best part of Kio Stark is that she does not go on to disrupt education system and make schools obsolete. Yes, schools and education system needs improvement and changes but it does not mean that we don’t need schools. Rather we need it, even better ones. The point, however, is that you can learn outside of school and make your own infrastructure for learning. Don’t Go Back To School shows how to.

Don’t Go Back To School is an illuminating read and it changes a lot about how we look at education and learning. It even liberates you. Go, get a copy.


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Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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